Building a Log Cabin With Hand Tools

Bill Sullivan originally wrote this article in 1981 about how to build a small log cabin and then it was reprinted and updated at

My wife and I kept down the cash outlay for our “Walden” by gathering most of the materials from the land where our house was to stand, and then building it ourselves, using only hand tools. As a result, our small home cost us only about $100 to construct … and the project was so simple that we’re convinced anyone with access to a few basic implements and a good supply of timber could build a log cabin too.

One of the ways in which we kept our expenses down was to choose an uncomplicated design for our cabin. After researching several log house styles, we decided to build a home patterned after the Norwegian stabbur, which is a storehouse built on a raised foundation of pillars or stilts. A traditional stabbur also features extra-wide eaves, which repel rain and snow; small windows and a low door, which help reduce heat loss; and an upstairs loft, which serves to nearly double the available floor space.

The size of our cabin was limited more by our stamina than by the design. We didn’t want to have to deal with logs any longer than 16 feet, so our home measures 10 feet by 13 feet inside. Creative planning and the careful placement of doors could allow a much larger house to be built, but I always encourage first-timers to think small (and then possibly add on needed space later).

When our plans were drawn up, we chose a cleared and level site with nearby water, pitched a couple of large tents for temporary shelter, and packed in enough flour and beans to sustain us during a summer of hard work. While my father — who had volunteered to help during his vacation — worked on our outhouse, I marked the borders of the cabin’s foundation with stakes and string. Next, I dug six holes, three on each side, to a depth of 2-1/2 feet, right at the wall line of the cabin, and hauled in 20 wheelbarrowfuls of large, flat rocks that we’d gathered on the property. Using four bags of mortar mix, I made sturdy cement-and-stone piers in each of the holes, extending the supports 18 inches above ground level. After the extra spaces in the openings were packed with gravel, I topped the “stilts” with large plates of sheet metal to keep termites and small rodents out of the cabin.

Next on our agenda was the exciting — and often backbreaking — task of finding, cutting, and hauling in the logs that would soon become the walls of our home. We selected trees from our dense second-growth forest which needed thinning. Most of the conifers we earmarked for our dwelling measured only about seven to nine inches in diameter and thus were too small to have commercial value. Working together, my wife and I felled each tree using a 5-foot crosscut saw and then removed the limbs. Then, with an axe or a hardwood barking spud (a 2-foot-long stick with a wedge-shaped tip) we stripped the bark off each trunk. We found that it was better to peel the logs immediately, because if the bark was left on the trunk for more than a few days, it would adhere to the dead tree and have to be laboriously whittled away with a drawknife.

After the trunks were barked, we cut them into lengths and hauled them out of the woods with the help of an old set of iron wheels that we pulled with ropes. (Fortunately, all our towing was downhill. Otherwise, we would have needed a draft horse to handle the chore.)

Collecting the sill logs (those that form the bottom layer on each wall of the cabin) required a special trip, since they had to be the largest of all. We chose trees that were at least 12 inches in diameter, so that the smaller logs we’d already cut would have adequate support when used to form the upper portions of the walls. With the sill logs at the building site, I hewed the top of each piece flat, using an adze (a tool that looks like a sideways axe, and is swung between the legs) … and checked its flatness with a straight piece of standard lumber. Then the two side sills were lowered into place atop the stone pillars I’d already constructed. Finally, I carved saddle notches into the undersides of the end sill logs and fitted them over the side timbers.

Once the sill logs were positioned, we decided to floor the cabin before completing its walls. I first hewed flat four 8-inch-diameter joist rounds, squared their ends with an axe, and notched them into slots chiseled halfway through the side sill logs at even intervals along the length of the wall. Of course, if you use dimension lumber for your floor joists, you’ll be able to build a flatter floor faster … but such boards lack the character of — and are more expensive than — logs. We set the joists into notches carved inside the wall line, so they would be in less danger of rotting and would allow the first wall log to fit in place more easily.

Then, for the sake of simplicity, we planked our floor with 2-by-8 pieces of salvaged lumber from a demolished farm house. That underfooting served us well for several seasons. Later, we completed the floor with a tar paper layer and handsome planks of 1-by-10 fir, laid at right angles to the recycled lumber (that is, parallel to the crosswise joists).

After our cabin had a sturdy foundation and flooring, we tackled the job of notching and piling logs to form the walls. Many folks pale at the very thought of lifting heavy timbers into place, but surprisingly, we found that raising the walls can be one of the least arduous parts of the whole cabin construction process. Before we could begin, though, we had to decide — by size — the sequence in which the logs would be used, and then cut notches in the ends of each length, so that they would fit neatly into their “neighbors.” (It’s a darn good idea, at this point, to label the logs somehow so you’ll know in what order to pile them on the wall.) I chose to use one-sided saddle notches, since the fancier dovetail and Lincoln-log notches — which are carved out on the top and bottom of each log — tend to collect rainwater in the upper half and can even rot out in extremely wet areas (such as our location in western Oregon).

To make a saddle notch, I simply set a log on top of the timber it will eventually rest upon and mark a semicircle, halfway through it, that exactly matches the dimensions of the supporting log. Then I roll the top log over and cleanly chop out the notched area as marked. If the pole doesn’t fit well when I roll it back into place, I just keep trimming until it does. Sometimes, a saw cut at the edge of the notch will help keep the sides even, but it doesn’t matter if the fit is slightly ragged … since any open space will be fitted with mortar.

With our logs all carefully tagged and notched, we devised a ramp — by leaning several long poles against the top of the wall — and placed each timber, in turn, at the bottom of that ramp, parallel to the wall. Then we tied a rope to each end of the top of the wall, looped them under the log on the ground, and brought them back up to the top. Using this simple arrangement, two people (pulling, in tandem, from the opposite side of the wall) can easily raise a heavy log up the ramp and lever it into place on top. We also had to remember, as we built the walls, to alternate the timbers’ large ends in order to keep the assembly stable and level.

When the walls had reached the proper height, we constructed the floor for our upstairs loft bedroom using log joists just as we had for the main floor. (We were careful, however, to leave openings to accommodate the ladder and the stovepipe that would be installed later.) Then it was time to put on the gables and roof … the “crowning glory” of our little masterpiece.

At this point, many log-home builders give up the “purity” of their project and resort to store-bought rafters and plywood sheathing. We were still determined to finish our house with local materials though, so we used small logs — down to four inches in diameter — for the gables, and held them in place with 29 long, straight poles that also serve as purlins, or horizontal rafters, to support the roofing itself.

It probably would have cost us more than $1,000 to have our cabin roofed by a contractor, but — with some luck — we were able to do the job ourselves, for free! After we decided to use a cedar-shake roof, we walked the local beaches until we found a large cedar log among the driftwood that often washes in during winter storms. Rejoicing at our good luck, we cut the log into 24-inch bolts, and split each of those into half-inch shakes with a mallet and a cleaving tool called a froe.

The shakes were then fastened right onto the purlins with galvanized nails, starting with a double course along each eave. Every row of shakes starts eight inches higher than did the one before it, giving the entire housetop a triple layer of shakes. Furthermore, only 8 inches of each slab is exposed to the weather, so our roof doesn’t leak and will probably last for a hundred years! In addition, the ridgepole is protected by a double row of shakes that overlap four inches toward the leeward side (the slope opposite prevailing winds). Once again, we had to remember — as we placed the roofing — to leave a hole for the stovepipe (the opening is fitted with a store-bought metal flange) so the flue wouldn’t have to be routed through a window.

At that stage, our handmade log cabin was almost ready to be called home! To finish it off, we framed the sides of the door and window openings with dimension lumber spiked into the logs. I built my own door (on a diagonal grain) and set it on hand-hewn maple hinges, then rigged up an old-fashioned wooden bar latch, which is lifted by a string hanging on the outside of the portal.

With our doors and windows in place, we could really hear the breeze whistling through the cracks in the walls. First, we tried the traditional Scandinavian solution and packed the chinks with dried moss, but nesting squirrels seemed to pull out the herbage faster than we could stuff it in! After the cracks had been chinked with cement, however, our cabin became the comfortable, weathertight dwelling we’d hoped to create.

Aside from its being economical and practical shelter, we find that our log cabin does indeed provide us with the basis for a back-to-nature lifestyle that — we feel — is everything it’s cracked up to be. On frosty mornings we roll out of bed, clamber down the ladder from the loft, and fire up the old wood stove, quickly warming the house and fogging the windows. On stormy evenings, my wife usually curls up with a steaming cup of tea, while I pop corn by kerosene lamplight and listen to the rain pinging on the roof.

We may not have a well-maintained road, electricity, or even indoor plumbing, but we’re delighted with the solid comfort of our home … and with the fact that we built it ourselves, using only a month’s savings and no power tools.

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